Americans today who weren’t around during the 1950s and 1960s might not recognize the world many older Catholics grew up in. Many of the oldsters, like me, were educated in the parochial school system. At its peak, in 1968, it enrolled one out of every ten American students.
It was the nation’s largest private school system, largely built and run by orders of Catholic sisters. There were 179,974 of them in 1968, an all-time high. Most of them were teachers. Many of the rest were running the largest nonprofit hospital system in the country, a system that nuns largely organized, financed and built.
Basically, what these women did – along with orders of brothers also involved in this work – was to educate some of America’s poorest and least prepared immigrants. Many Irish, Italians and Eastern Europeans were launched into America’s middle class by this system, no mean feat in a nation where arriving Catholics often encountered prejudice.
So what did the nuns mean to young Catholics? In my school, in a working class neighborhood of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, we took them for granted. They were always there, planted in front of our classrooms. They dressed us up in white cassocks on May Day for a candle-lit procession to sing Latin hymns in praise of the Blessed Virgin.
A close observer, however, would see little boys pouring hot candle wax on each other’s arms. These experiments ended with nuns flitting in and out of our ranks to pull selected ears. The proximity of their convent next to the school and their isolation from the rest of the business of the community made them close observers.
In that convent retired nuns who had taught our parents were advising our teachers. When we were little, we were sure our teachers could see around corners. In a way, they could.
By high school it was not cool to say you admired nuns, though many of us secretly did. Some of the girls might still say that, but for boys it was better to smoke cigarettes, drink beer, shoot pool and make these women into cartoons. They had succeeded by whacking students with rulers, we would say. Much closer to the truth was that these women loved us and sacrificed much to make sure that we used the quiet of the Catholic classroom to learn.
From that class half of us went on to finish college. Most of us married for life, raised strong families and moved to jobs all over the U.S. and overseas. So we weren’t surprised in the 1980s when sociologists and educators discovered the “Catholic School effect.” They found that once the statistical bias of having high income-earning parents was removed, Catholic high school sophomores were the nation’s top academic performers.
They also found the achievement gap between white students and minorities in Catholic schools was narrower than in public schools. More homework got done and there were fewer absences and dropouts.
Most of the women who performed this miracle are gone or in retirement. A steep drop in the recruitment of younger sisters (who cared for the older ones), insufficient retirement funds, soaring health costs and declining income of religious orders has created an ominous financial gap. Since 1988 the Bishops’ annual collection for the Retirement Fund for Religious has raised $671 million to help retired religious.
For each of the last three years the cost of caring for elderly religious has been over $1 billion. If the nuns were still teaching us, they would say sit up straight, keep your feet under your desk and do the math. That would help Catholics see around this corner. We need to give more to make sure our religious retire with what they struggled so hard to give us: a sense of dignity.---
John Fialka, as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, broke the story of the retirement shortfall for religious orders on May 19, 1986. He later wrote “Sisters; Catholic nuns and the Making of America” (St. Martin’s Press, 2004). After retiring from the Journal in 2008, he became editor of ClimateWire, an internet newsletter about climate change.
Editor's Note: To contribute to the Retirement Fund for Religious, visit: http://www.usccb.org/about/national-religious-retirement-office/ or www.retiredreligious.org